Bilger's article profiles AGTA member Tom Cushman, who has been involved in Madagascar's gemstone business for many years.The New Yorker's
press release summarizes the article:
Burkhard Bilger writes about the gem industry in Madagascar, which has some of the richest, and least exploited, gem deposits on earth ("The Path of Stones," p. 66).Tom Cushman
, an American who realized the potential of Madagascar's gem industry before the sapphire and ruby rushes there in the late nineties, and who has worked at nearly every level of the trade, tells Bilger, "Practically the whole island is gemmiferous.If you fall out of an airplane, land on the ground, and start digging, you're going to find something."Of Madagascar's precious stones, Bilger
writes, "There were rubies as red as those in Sri Lanka, garnets as green as those in Kenya's Tsavo National Park, and some stones, like flaming-pink pezzottaite, that could be found almost nowhere else."What makes Madagascar so attractive to people like Cushman is that its gem supply is both easily accessible and virtually untapped.Bilger
writes that a stone's price depends on many qualities, most notably its beauty, rarity, and durability, but also its clarity, its color, its brittleness, the number of jewels that can be cut from it, and, more recently, the way it will respond to special refining procedures.Cushman
, who arrived in Madagascar in 1991, tells Bilger that he
relished the country's "Wild West" atmosphere.He
says, "It's great.There's murder, claim-jumping, sex, violence, scandal, corruption."Of the danger, Cushman
adds, "In four days, I watched three rookies get robbed of between thirty and fifty thousand dollars each.
didn't have the greatest luck when it came to mining, others struck large deposits."All told," Bilger
writes, "about half a million Malagasy made some income off mining."
At the same time, he
adds, "No one was better at mining the miners than the foreign dealers.Cushman
paid about thirty dollars a carat for large, good-quality rough in Ilakaka, then cut and sold it for three or four times that price in Asia or the United States."Though his
profit far exceeded that of most Malagasy workers (in a good year, he
might make a hundred thousand dollars), Cushman tells Bilger that he
has no patience with those who called his
work exploitation: "You come down to Madagascar and live the way I live, take the risks that I take, take the s*&t I take, and tell me it ain't fair."He
does, however, concede that the Malagasy will have a difficult time digging themselves out of poverty if the current structure of the industry stays the same.Bilger
writes, "To build a true gem industry, they had to learn to cut, treat, and sell stones directly to wholesalers."Cushman
himself is in many ways spearheading the country's effort to educate its native population: in 2002, backed by the country's first truly elected democratic government in thirty years, he
was hired to help open a gemology school. Tom Cushman in MadagascarLeft to right: Vincent Pardieu and Dana Schorr talk turkey with Tom Cushman at his Institute of Gemology of Madagascar (IGM) in October 2005.